‘The Kiev Trial’ review: Sergei Loznitsa’s latest dip into the archives explores the banality of Nazi evil in Ukraine [B-] | Venice
On Venice’s Lido island, documentarian Sergei Loznitsa was greeted like an exiled novelist, or an ex-political prisoner finally able to meet his adoring fans. Yet the Ukrainian filmmaker’s latest film, The Kiev Trial, does not appear to have all that much to do with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his country; The Natural History of Destruction, which played at Cannes, felt much more topical. But as always, Loznitsa’s carefully choreographed sequences of historical archive footage are not made in vacuums, even as Russia’s war threatens to suck all life out of Ukraine.
Dispassionately telling the story of 22 captured Nazi officials who committed heinous crimes in the occupied, then-Soviet Union city ‘Kiev’ (now Ukrainian capital Kyiv), Loznitsa cannily mirrors his banal subjects. As New Yorker journalist Hannah Arendt famously reported from Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem fifteen years later, the Nazi regime’s most evil excesses were shrouded in emotionlessness, be that the careerism of the officers in charge (Eichmann was a famous medal-chaser), or a simple, perhaps even sickeningly sincere, wish to “do a good job”.
Though profoundly controversial at the time, particularly coming from a German Jew herself, Arendt’s theory is now widely accepted. The Kiev Trial provides decent further evidence in its favour — if not too much else. The crucial point is that the titular trial, whose hundreds of hearings and thousands of witness statements were attended by huge crowds, took place just a year after the end of the war. It was not the calculated, blockbuster show trial Eichmann’s would prove to be, but a fiery act of revenge. Even the most sorrowful officials who pleaded guilty suffered the same fates as rugged deniers who had few regrets. But the strength of feeling in Soviet Ukraine was too fierce for devil’s advocate proceedings, especially when the devil was on the dock. To quote the Black civil rights activists of the 1960s: No justice, no peace.
The Kiev Trial lacks a wider perspective Loznitsa has offered before, most notably in his 2021 magnum opus Babi Yar. Context, which even has some of this film’s more striking footage, including testimonies by oppressed Ukrainians, Jews and Gentiles alike. Its somewhat cold storytelling does, of course, seem a narrative decision, and is not an unwise one. But in pulling some of the drama out of proceedings in order to make a well-known point about Nazism, Loznitsa’s film can’t help feeling just a bit like reading a detailed Wikipedia page.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival.